The League of Nations was formed shortly after the new year in 1920. Only 26 years later it would formally dissolve to be replaced with the United Nations (UN). This Entry tells the stories of its founding, purpose, successes and failures before that of its collapse.
How did the League Come to Be?
Vienna Congress and Concert of Europe
Picking out what exactly led to the formation of the League of Nations can be quite hard due to the scarcity of international bodies and agreements beforehand, with what few there were wiped away by the Napoleonic wars. At their cessation in 1814 the Vienna Congress took place, which over a year would rearrange Europe politically. It did so with the rough intention of making the political scene reasonably equitable so that no one country could try and conquer the others. The name 'Congress' is a bit misleading - there weren't any great meetings in the sense of ambassadors of every country meeting in the United Nations. Instead it was various meetings between the main powers and various lesser ones. However what makes it so different is that national representatives were all present, rather than messages going to and from capitals.
The Concert of Europe was not a formal body with any form of charter. It was instead an agreement between the British Empire, Russia, Prussia and Austria (with France later added). It was effectively an agreement to enforce the agreements of the Vienna Congress, and to meet whenever desired by a country. The Concert would keep a degree of peace in the region for a while, and deciding certain matters such as the independence of Belgium, but would soon lapse into ineffectiveness.
However two additional points are worthy of note. One is that the Congress was still in session during the short-lived return of Napoleon, allowing a more rapid, cohesive response against him than might otherwise have been the case. So confident was the Congress of their victory that they actually continued negotiations and finished shortly before the Battle of Waterloo. A second point is that while the Congress would lapse, the geo-political landscape carved would lead to a reasonable state of peace for a century (as compared to the shorter peacetime after earlier Napoleonic wars or World War I).
This international body of parliamentarians was set up in 1889. It originally consisted of lots of individual members, rather than people representing countries. The first permanent multi-national political organisation (with members from 24 countries), it would play an important role in setting up the Hague peace conventions. It met at least annually, with a heavy focus on trying to set up, maintain and improve an arbitration system for countries to use. While it didn't succeed before World War I, the organisation still exists, with almost every country represented.
Hague and Geneva Conventions
These four1 treaties would set out the Rules of War. The treaties included rules concerning disallowed weapons, war crimes, treatment of captured soldiers, spies and parole. They also arranged for a permanent court of arbitration. While again in no way a body of representatives, the rules contained within them would make up much of the founding articles of the League of Nations2.
World War I
This 'war to end all wars' was only one-quarter spent by the time that parties began to clamour that something would have to be done to prevent future wars. As the death toll rose, the support for such a body grew. Both the total death count as well as several other factors added to the need for such a solution: the initial conflict grew into a World War extremely rapidly due to the system in place, with no chance to stop it. Additionally the Hague conventions were frequently breached throughout the war, by both sides, as they sought some way to break the deadlock.
But What Form?
Britain, France and the US all put forward different proposals. These would have given different powers to the League, different scales and different levels of activity. Eventually a compromise would be formed and the League of Nations was born.
The Covenant of the League of Nations
The forming document that would bind all members of the League of Nations was a short one - perhaps as much as could be agreed on and still get any nations to sign up. Indeed the whole text only takes a few minutes to read, but this Entry considers some of the more important parts of Articles - some are included because of their content and some which might appear unimpressive but were the first of their kind.
The action of the League under this Covenant shall be effected through the instrumentality of an Assembly and of a Council, with a permanent Secretariat.
The important bit here is, perhaps oddly, the last part - no international diplomatic body had ever existed so permanently and equally that it needed an established Secretariat bonded to the organisation itself.
The Assembly shall consist of Representatives of the Members of the League.[...] At meetings of the Assembly each Member of the League shall have one vote.
The League finally creates that general chamber where all parties are ranked equally. This body could cover what matters it wished, but its stated intervals only set a minimum requirement of meeting every 4 years!
The Council shall consist of Representatives of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers, together with Representatives of four other Members of the League.
The Council, meeting every year, was arranged so that the larger powers would, in effect, be able to decide world policy as they wished (if they could agree).
Except where otherwise expressly provided in this Covenant or by the terms of the present Treaty, decisions at any meeting of the Assembly or of the Council shall require the agreement of all the Members of the League represented at the meeting.
This is a big one. Indeed it might be accepted as one of several reasons why the League was doomed as an effective body. Concerning true matters of substance - the actual prevention of wars - even the smaller body still needed unanimous agreement. This would prove to be impossible when tensions rose - as is generally the case when trying to prevent a conflict.
The Members of the League recognise that the maintenance of peace requires the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety and the enforcement by common action of international obligations.[...] The Members of the League undertake to interchange full and frank information as to the scale of their armaments, their military, naval and air programmes and the condition of such of their industries as are adaptable to war-like purposes.
Part of the reason why World War I was so destructive was the huge arms race that had begun before it. It was also known that arms races could themselves become the causes of war. As such, attempts at disarmament were built into the system. As will be elucidated below, there were two major problems with this however.
The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.
Another big one, this could be considered to be the big stick of the Covenant. If a country knew that an attempt at aggression would result in every member uniting against them it was thought that would result in its prevention. However its binding nature would prove so onerous as to cause the legitimacy of the League to be in doubt from the very start.
The Members of the League agree that whenever any dispute shall arise between them which they recognise to be suitable for submission to arbitration or judicial settlement and which cannot be satisfactorily settled by diplomacy, they will submit the whole subject-matter to arbitration or judicial settlement.
Here members would be required to avoid war by a still reasonably unused method of binding arbitration, not simply attempting to use a peacemaker country to aid in negotiations. The Article also states (in rather vague terms) that the Council would compel obedience to whatever is ruled within the arbitration.
The Council shall formulate and submit to the Members of the League for adoption plans for the establishment of a Permanent Court of International Justice. The Court shall be competent to hear and determine any dispute of an international character which the parties thereto submit to it."
To arbitrate the issues, the League would set up a body that remains in force today. Despite attempts over several decades beforehand, the concept of allowing a judicial body to make judgements over whole states was extremely controversial3.
Should any Member of the League resort to war in disregard of its covenants under Articles 12, 13 or 15, it shall ipso facto be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other Members of the League, which hereby undertake immediately to subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between their nationals and the nationals of the covenant-breaking State, and the prevention of all financial, commercial or personal intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-breaking State and the nationals of any other State, whether a Member of the League or not.
This 'attack one, attack all of us' nature was automatically set up to bring catastrophically severe reactions against the country in question. However the obvious concern is that this would be supposed to take place whatever links might be in place between countries in the League - for it to work, countries would have to place obedience to the League above their allies.
Every treaty or international engagement entered into hereafter by any Member of the League shall be forthwith registered with the Secretariat and shall as soon as possible be published by it. No such treaty or international engagement shall be binding until so registered.
An Article that is replicated word for word in the modern UN Charter, this is supposed to stop secret treaties causing unexpected destabilisations in the world. As Russia would become a member of the League before World War II, it was breaching its agreements when it signed perhaps the most famous secret treaty, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, agreeing the division of Poland between Russia and Germany.
This article made mandates that would put regions under the control of the senior powers in the League. These came in three forms - 'A', where the mandates in question concerned communities that should be able to become countries in their own right when they desired to. 'B' mandates, concerning conquered regions of Germany and its allies, which were supposedly to allow autonomy while preventing the region from becoming a threat. Finally there were 'C' mandates which were viewed as areas never likely to be capable of supporting independence or even autonomy and should just be treated as if they were part of the country who controlled the mandate.
The Peace Palace
Upon the foundation of the League of Nations, plans were put into place to create its physical Headquarters, which would have to be somewhere within Geneva, Switzerland. The League would spend 16 years based in the Palais Wilson4. The Palais Wilson holds true to its international purpose even now, acting as the base for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
Plans to set up a purpose built Headquarters started early, as the needs of the League were so specific that suitable buildings were hard to find (given the need to stay within Geneva, as set by the founding Covenant). An architectural competition was held in the early 1920s with nearly 400 submissions. The panel set up to decide the winner somewhat failed in its job, ultimately picking the top five architects and telling them to co-operate and create a whole new design.
It would take seven years to construct, but the co-operating architects did succeed in constructing a beautiful building, which would function as the League's home until it became defunct and then dissolved. During World War II, the building was unused even though it remained safe in neutral Switzerland. The Peace Palace now belongs to the United Nations as a regional headquarters, where it hosts the International Court of Justice.
Membership of the League of Nations was always slightly troublesome, with huge levels of fluctuation. A large number of countries withdrew from the League, while others ceased to exist as they were conquered by Germany, the USSR or Italy. The USSR was expelled by the League for its repeated attacks on other nations. Below is the rough attempt to summarise the course of membership in its time.
For the full list of varying member states, have a look at this timeline. At the risk of suggesting readers take a look at arch-rivals Wikipedia, this page has an excellent rolling video showing the spread and decline of membership from the League's formation to its cessation.
First up is what would be a huge problem for the League right from the off. President Wilson, whose efforts were hugely important in the creation of the League, couldn't get the US Senate to sign off the Covenant. Certain Republican politicians prevented the Senate from approving it. This was primarily due to concerns with Article X (which requires militarily intervening to protect League members) – having already intervened in one European war, they didn't desire to do so again.
At the signing of the Covenant, 42 members joined up (not counting the USA who signed but failed to ratify). This includes the UK bringing in several of her then dominions - Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and New Zealand - as members in their own right.
Six new nations then joined rapidly in December 1920. However one of these, Costa Rica, shortly changed its mind, withdrawing just five years later.
In 1921 the three contiguous states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined up together (only to 'leave' together as the USSR absorbed them in World War II, although they never technically ceased to be League members).
During the rest of the 1920s, five more states would join up – most notably, Germany would finally be accepted as a member. However Germany would remain in the League for less than a decade, as Hitler withdrew the country when he came to power in 1933.
Only a few states would join in the 1930s. The addition of the USSR, Afghanistan and Ecuador in September 1934 would bring the League to its largest size of 58 states5 – this condition lasted less than a year before a number of states would start leaving. Egypt, in May 1937, would be the last member to join. The USSR would, in 1939, become the only League member to ever be expelled, after it invaded multiple League nations.
Successes of the League of Nations
The League would, both during its time and in the decades after its creation, be lambasted for its ineffectiveness and complete inability to act. While this contains a heavy degree of truth in some aspects, it is unfair to forget what it did achieve. This mainly comes in two areas - what its subsidiary bodies achieved in areas outside peace and security, and actual peacekeeping measures successfully achieved.
Organs of the League of Nations
Several key bodies came into being under the auspices of the League of Nations. Some were formalisations of bodies that had existed only in uncertain form or for a fixed time. Others were nearly created out of the whole cloth. Below are several bodies (not counting the Permanent Court of International Justice mentioned earlier), which are accepted to have provided significant positive benefits to the world in an extremely dark time, crawling out of the wreckage of World War I. That they were important and beneficial can be seen an alternative way – they still exist today, either as a part of another body or as a complete organisation in their own right.
The Health Organisation - This body acted around the League (not to mention outside it), attempting to combat a number of diseases as well as generally promote good health. Initially heavily disorganised (especially contrasted with the larger and far better established International Red Cross) it would slowly hit its stride before unfortunately falling apart as World War II approached, as its funding was provided by national governments – with no League it could not exist. However in 1948 it morphed into the World Health Organisation, today a vast organisation that attempts to co-ordinate 200 world governments and thousands of charities in health efforts around the globe.
A notable example of the Health Organisation's early success is in Turkey in 1923. While a failure of the League's security abilities - a bloody war broke out generating 1.8 million refugees, almost all women and children - the Health Organisation sent large numbers of doctors and medical staff to control the rampant disease outbreaks. The League would donate over £10 million - the equivalent of £500 million in modern money. The Commission for Refugees (see below) worked to create new jobs and spread people into a more supportable area - 600,000 new jobs for the refugees were created in 18 months, a success rarely seen in modern refugee crises. One member of the Organisation would refer to it as 'the greatest work of mercy which mankind has undertaken'.
The International Labour Organisation - the ILO, responsible for promoting positive working conditions around the world, brought together several disagreeing international movements into a single body. The ILO would prove quicker off the mark - its founders all knew each other and there were already pre-existing bodies to buttress it. The ILO would successfully push for work restrictions, freedom of assembly and legalisation of unions in numerous countries before World War II. The ILO, by moving to Canada, would manage to maintain its existence during World War II (albeit as a non-active body) allowing it to be the first specialised body of the UN. Today 185 countries hold membership in the ILO - all from a body created by the League of Nations.
The Commission for Refugees, the Slavery Commission and the Intellectual Commission on Intellectual Co-operation - these bodies would manage varying degrees of success before being terminated by the onset of World War II. The Intellectual Commission on Intellectual Co-operation was founded first as a feasibility study and only began true operations in 1925, giving it only a short time to take actions before the onset of World War II. However its goals and plans would then be adopted by the newly created UNESCO. The Slavery Commission did act to push members to take action against slavery with the Commission for Refugees taking comparable actions. There isn't much data available to know the relative success or failure of these bodies other than a degree of initial disorganisation. However they too would both be adopted by successor UN bodies, and so too would provide future benefits to the world.
The League of Nations successfully mediated or arbitrated in a number of territorial disputes between members. While it could generally only do so when considering an issue that didn't involve the permanent powers on the Council6, given that a Council or Assembly vote operated off consensus it was amazing they ever got anything done! It should be noted that there was significant flux going on territory-wise as ambiguities in the treaties concluding World War I were debated.
The Åland Islands - The Åland Islands would be the first test of the League and indeed the first international agreement that was negotiated through it at all. This issue was a rather confusing one. The Åland Islands had traditionally belonged to Sweden, but had been annexed by Russia. When Russia fell into the October Revolution in its transit to a Communist government, Finland decided to revolt and become an independent country. Both Sweden and Finland would claim the islands (the islands having been taken with Finland when Russia had invaded Sweden). After having decided the issue was not purely an internal matter, the League created a panel to resolve the issue. In June 1921 the League would announce that the Åland Islands were to remain with Finland but with certain protections for the inhabitants as well as the islands becoming a demilitarised zone - a status that remains in place even today.
Upper Silesia - A region between Germany and Poland, the exact status of who would control the region was, according to the Treaty of Versailles, left to a local referendum. Riots about treatment by Germany led to an uprising in both 1919 and 1920. A plebiscite then took place in March 1921, giving a substantial (if not huge) majority of 60% wishing to be part of Germany. Poland, with some backing by France, which wanted post-war Germany to be weakened, disputed the results. This triggered yet another uprising by pro-Polish Silesians. This uprising proved quite successful with a considerable amount of territory being taken. A ceasefire was finally reached when a disputed region was occupied by Allied forces. As France and Britain couldn't settle the dispute between them, the issue went to the League.
The League created a commission, with representatives from Belgium, Brazil, China and Spain. The commission came to the conclusion that the region should be split between Germany and Poland, with regions going to who they preferred in the referendum. This led to Germany getting most of the territory but Poland ending up with much of the economic might of the region. Since an effective economic region was being truncated, the League also required that a convention be created to facilitate trade and movement in the region. The League threatened both countries that if they failed to support the convention they would be penalised by League sanctions. While the compromise would provoke unhappiness and later lead to a tariff war, the uprisings stopped and peace was maintained7.
Albania and Corfu - Albania would be a recurring source of conflict. The Paris peace conference left the borders of Albania with Yugoslavia unset, giving the task to the upcoming League. The League would however prove somewhat slow as it came into being. In September 1921, Greek forces exercising in Southern Albania would provoke Yugoslavian forces in the North. Clashes in the region finally encouraged movement from the League and it settled the issue simply by going back to the 1913 pre-war borders.
Two years later, General Tellini and his assistants from Italy were killed while setting out the border between Greece and Albania8. Mussolini blamed the Greeks, demanding 50 million lire and an investigation (note that the money was to be paid irrespective of any investigation). Pending the investigation the Greeks refused to pay. Mussolini then had Corfu shelled and invaded by Italian forces. Greece asked the League to intervene, but Mussolini managed to have the League defer to the Conference of Ambassadors (the body that had appointed General Tellini to mark borders) to settle the dispute. The League still investigated and the Conference mainly went along with it. The dispute was thus 'settled': Greece would pay the 50 million lire and Italy would withdraw. This might be rather ambivalent as a League success, but it did avert a chance of far greater conflict, so by that marker it succeeded.
Greece and Bulgaria - The 'War of the Stray Dog' as it would come to be known, was a crisis between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925. Two reports of how it started are: the much more interesting (and cause of the name) story that a Greek soldier ran after his dog, accidentally entering Bulgarian territory and was shot; or the alternative suggested that Bulgarian forces crossed the Greek border and killed two soldiers.
At this point there was a short detente - the Bulgarian government expressed its regrets about the death of the soldier and suggested a joint commission. Greece refused while there were still Bulgarian troops on their soil (there seems little sign that there were any Bulgarian troops on their soil) and demanded reparations. Bulgaria refused and Greece seized a town, Petrich, to compel agreement by Bulgaria. At this point Bulgaria asked the League of Nations to step in.
The League acted quickly, demanding that both states stand down and withdraw their forces from the region while neutral forces were sent in to ensure separation. The League would also then order Greece to pay £45,000 (about £2 million today) to Bulgaria in reparations and to leave Bulgarian territory. Both sides accepted the ruling, but Greece objected firmly to Italy (one of the Great Powers) receiving better treatment.
Peru-Colombia War - This example is not a case of the League enforcing peace on a region but managing to aid both parties. Colombia and Peru had gone through a history of border conflicts, and attempted to settle it by Peru ceding land to Colombia. Alas, the Peruvians who owned said land took poorly to this and launched an armed seizure in 1932. The Peruvian leadership didn't want the Colombians to reoccupy the region and took the land, triggering a war between the two countries.
With neither side wanting the conflict9 months of negotiations were attempted before they managed to agree that the League of Nations should mediate. An early agreement in May 1933 had the two sides agree that while the negotiations continued, the League would take control of the region so as to prevent further casualties and conflict. A year later the final treaty was concluded: the land was returned to Colombia; an apology was issued by Peru; the area was demilitarised on both sides; free navigation of the area's waterways was agreed10 and a non-aggression pact signed.
Failures of the League
The failures of the League of Nations unfortunately outweighed the successes. The fact that the organisation set up to end all wars ended in World War II rather doomed its historic reputation. The League would however fail in various security crises before 1939, of which those below are just an example. Another type of League failure that might be considered are its mandates - in theory they were set up to slowly move away from or mitigate colonialism, but they moved almost nowhere in 20 years.
Teschen - At the beginning of 1919, the newly formed countries of Poland and the Czech Republic tried to ensure they controlled this border town. The reasons were the same for both - seizing the rich coal mines to aid their new-found economies11. After armed conflict broke out, the League stepped in and divided the town. Poland got most of the land but the Czech Republic got the part with the actual valuable coal mines. As such, Poland refused to accept the settlement. While armed conflict didn't erupt again, under threat by the League, the continuation of tensions in the region cannot be considered a success by the League.
Poland's Invasion of Russia - In 1920-21, Poland would almost double its size by invading Russia12. While Russia wasn't a League member, Poland was, and the Covenant restricted members attacking non-members as well. The League would however do absolutely nothing, completely ignoring the issue. This is due to the Council consisting of members that would have been more than happy for the threat of Communism to be abolished. Clearly this invasion would set up Russia to support Germany in the outset of World War II, so they could reclaim their taken land.
Invasion of the Ruhr - In 1922 Germany failed to pay an instalment of the reparations demanded under the Treaty of Versailles, claiming that they simply did not possess the capability to do so. France (one of the League's senior members), with the backing of Britain (the League's most powerful member), invaded the Ruhr - Germany's most important industrial region. In doing so they breached multiple treaties and the League's Covenant; however, as the most powerful League nations, there was no action even considered against them. France and Britain's actions set a horrific example - that the League would be unable to rein in its senior members while at the same time inflaming Germany against the European powers and the League.
Flume - Earlier was mentioned the extremely tenuous success of Italy and Greece, which included the shelling of Corfu by Italy. After Italy proved so successful at getting the desired result from the League it decided to push its new freedom. While the Treaty of Versailles had given the port of Flume to Yugoslavia, when Italy invited them to discuss the ownership of the port in 1923, the recent history of Corfu led to it being handed over - with no discouragement from the League at all.
The Mukden Incident - In 1931, Japanese troops stationed at the Manchurian railway in China sabotaged it before claiming the Chinese as the aggressors. Using this as a pretext, Japan conquered all of Manchuria. China appealed to the League for intervention. Even for senior figures travel took time 80 years ago, and it took some time before a ruling could be made. Unsurprisingly Japan was found to be at fault and the Assembly would rule 33-113 that Japan was the guilty party and must comply with various requirements. Japan then removed itself from the League. The League however completely failed to function any further - no economic sanctions were made (Japan mainly traded with the USA, a non-League member) and with turmoil starting to flare up worldwide, no member had the army to send to help China. It would take victory in World War II before China had the territory returned.
Abyssinia - In October 1935 Mussolini continued Italy's abuse of the League by sending 400,000 soldiers into Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). Not content with crushing the woefully inferior opposition the Italian forces used mustard gas and other chemical weapons against civilian targets and poisoned water supplies. These numerous war crimes broke multiple weapons treaties as well as the League's prohibitions (not to mention the one prohibiting aggression in the first place!). The League deployed economic sanctions but only at a low level - oil imports were still permitted and the Suez Canal wasn't closed as the British feared the Italians would just seize it if that occurred. No further action was taken by the League, providing a total failure to police its members even when so close to its militarily powerful members.
These are only the high points when it comes to League security failures. There were also various other failures in Central America, Europe, Africa and Asia. The last referral to the League would be in 1937 when Japan attempted a full-scale invasion of China. The League chose to yield control of the situation to the Nine Power Treaty Conference (the main military powers after World War I) who were as incapable of acting as the League. After this, powers broke apart and the final run-in to the start of the Second World War began.
The End of the League
While multiple members would leave the League in the years before 1939, many maintained their membership even during the Second World War. Of course a number of these members would cease to be countries during the war as they were conquered by Germany and its allies before later being liberated.
In an impressively organised fashion, despite the catastrophic breakdown in global peace and the de facto collapse of the League, members passed resolutions enabling the Secretary-General to at least keep the League as a sustained body during the next 6 years of war. This would make life significantly easier to close up shop after peace was concluded.
In April 1946 the Assembly of the League met for the last time. 34 Member States attended, coming together in order to dissolve the League permanently. Reserve funds that countries had contributed were returned to them, while the League's various assets were moved to that of the newly formed United Nations and the different sub-bodies of it - including numerous properties, such as the Palace of Peace, and the modern-day equivalent of £848 million. Robert Cecil - Britain's strongest advocate of the League of Nations and a drafter of the Covenant - admitted its failure in the meeting's final speech. He stated that the advocacy of war and aggression would have to be met by all states and peoples in the future, with his final words reading:
The League is dead. Long live the United Nations.
Has the United Nations done any better? Well it celebrated its 70th birthday in 2015, but for further information the other Entries in this Project are yours to read!